Very early Sunday morning—around two a.m.—my daughter woke up, having gotten sick in her bed. Felicia and I split duties without saying a word, cleaning the bed and the kiddo, before finally getting her back to sleep sometime around three-thirty. After a day home from school, it happened again. "I wish my whole family was here," Squish sobbed. This is one kid who believes in the healing power of her family's love. Even if choosing to empty your guts in front of every single family member is a bit of an odd way to demonstrate it.
In the introduction to Michael Chabon's newest book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, he writes about an author who discouraged him from being a father. He doesn't identify the author, but he doesn't have to, since the author's advice embodies a very familiar rhetoric:
"You can write great books," the great man continued. "Or you can have kids. It's up to you."
The history of authors whose work has commenced at the expense of their families is long and familiar. It's an awful idea, that artists cannot be successful parents, and one that continues to be perpetuated. Most recently, John Banville breathed some life into the notion, in an interview in the Irish Times:
“I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is. You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones.”
I was pleased to see other artists take issue with this, which suggest to me that the toxic idea of artists as abusive or detached parents may be slowly draining out of our culture. This later piece in the Irish Times captured some of the backlash, including David Simon's tweet:
"Speak for yourself, fucknuts. Family is family. The job is the job.
My little writing space at home has two chairs. One of them is perpetually filled with all the books I hope to read this year. The other is always empty, so that my daughter has a place to hang out while I work, if she so desires. Wait—let's put "work" in quotes; work is a very different thing when I do it and she's with me.
When I'm alone in my office, work is typing. Mostly. It's me typing up repairs to things I typed before, or typing up new things that I'll make repairs to tomorrow. When Squish is with me, work is a bit of typing, then a bit of collaborative illustrating in Photoshop (she likes to design random things centered, for no apparent reason, on the letter Q), or a bit of work followed by us lying on the rug, drawing or painting together, or a bit of work followed by us watching funny animal videos.
I read John Irving's A Widow for One Year twenty years ago, when I was nineteen. I was on the cusp of getting married, then (to the wrong person, something I would remedy twelve years later by marrying the right one), but I was still more than a decade away from becoming a father. In Irving's novel, Ruth Cole's father, Ted, is exactly the sort of artist Banville described, and then some: neglectful of his family and his marriage, abusive and self-centered. That same year, a similar portrayal of artist as shitty father appeared in the movie One True Thing, in which William Hurt portrays an author who might imagine his family as barnacles upon his own hull. These two images, presented in succession, stuck with me.
I work a lot, or as much as any author who isn't writing full-time. By day, I'm a user experience designer for a software company; a few evenings each week, and for a full day each weekend, I work on whatever book I'm writing at the moment. I have deadlines, and I don't miss them (or at least, I haven't missed one yet). But I also try not to let my work be a closed door in our home. Yes, my office has a door, and yes, it's usually closed while I work—but it's always open, too. Squish will come in and hang out in the empty chair and read books, or write memos that she'll dash over and show me every few minutes. She'll linger at my bookshelves, deciding what books she'll read "when I'm seven," which I'm pretty sure she considers to be the age of adulthood. She pores over my personal copies of my own books, among which are copies of Eleanor and The Dark Age that I've set aside for her, and written a little something in, just for her; she likes to read and re-read those little notes, even though they're meant for her older self.
She's also often a part of my stories. I wrote The Dark Age while I was furiously working on a novel, designing dozens of book covers, and going on multiple job interviews each week. Eleanor would still be unfinished if I hadn't become a father. Little pieces of Squish make it into each of my projects—there's a familiar anecdote about the sun and a butt that shows up in my next book—but sometimes it's more than that. The project I'm writing now has its roots in a thoughtful comment she made one evening while we played Stardew Valley together. I'll write more about that some other time, though.
I've already told Squish that I have just two goals for her future: that she remains thoughtful and curious, as she already is; and that she does with her life the things that she wants to do with her life. Nevertheless, one day, while picking through my books, she said, "Daddy, when you're done writing books" (translation: when you're dead) "I'll take over and write them all. And then, when I'm done, my daughter will write them. And then her daughter will, too." What I said out loud was, "That's very sweet, dear, but you can do whatever you want to do. You don't have to decide now." What I thought, inside, was a strange combination of oh dear god no don't do that and I think my daughter is proud of me.
In a 2013 story in The New Yorker, by James Wood, the author mentions a memoirs written by the daughters of John Cheever, William Styron, and Bernard Malamud. This passage stuck with me:
William Styron and John Cheever were drinkers and depressives, and their lives were full of bravado and collapse. These histrionic undulations were exhausting. Both daughters confess to a certain fatigue; Styron says that she was relieved when her father died.
This made me think of two authors I've met in recent years, each of whom confided to me that they resented their families. "I don't think I'd run into traffic to save my kid," one told me, when recounting the story of one of their children darting towards a busy intersection; "I don't think I even love my children," the other confessed, "but I don't feel bad about it because they're doing just fine without me." How does one respond to such admissions? I retreated. I confess I can't relate to people who don't adore their kids. At least, to those who so freely admit such things. Why they chose to share such things with me is beyond me. I talk about my kid all the time. That might have been a clue that I wasn't the guy you share those dark secrets with.
In the anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, Liz Gilbert wrote about the poet Jack Gilbert:
We have this very German, romantic idea that if you’re not in pain, and if you’re not causing pain by making your art, then you’re not really doing it right. I’ve always questioned that. That’s the one thing that’s drawn me to Jack Gilbert—especially when I learned about his relationship to the Beats, who he felt were talented, but blowing it. They weren’t reverent enough toward the work, he thought, to live clean, sober, disciplined lives in respectful awe of what they were doing.
Respectful awe may be a bridge too far for me; writing is work, and hard work, but I sometimes think it’s the romanticism of it that hurts it, and us, the most.
I don't kid myself; there will be reasons for Squish to resent her childhood. Every kid grows into an adult who wishes things had been a little different, one one way or another, when they were young. But I hope that she'll never have to say My dad's stories were more important to him than his real life; they were more important to him than I was. I also hope she'll never have to say My dad ran into traffic to save me. But I would.